Monday, January 30, 2006

Liberal or Conservative: Does Anyone Really Care?

I, for one, am pretty tired of the banter than runs across the political and religious lines accusing one or the other of trying to destroy the (pick one) community/church/country. Whether one is right or wrong does not even come close to what the argument, name-calling, and mud-slinging is intended to accomplish.

I tend to lean toward the conservative side, but my "liberal" friends and I have a pretty good time taking cheap shots at one another and poking fun at the politicians who are in the headlines that particular day. More often than not, we move away from the banter laughing rather than scowling. Why? Because none of it is worth getting upset over. Whether religion or politics, we are still talking about man's perspective even as some among us might try to make a prophetic claim to be speaking in the Lord's behalf.

At one time I was adamantly and unapologetically conservative, a died-in-the-wool Reagan Republican who had little use for those *ahem* liberal "patriots". I would just as sooner have had teeth removed with a screwdriver than to listen to liberal blather. Not long ago, however, I took an online survey/test that evaluated one's tendencies. I scored just "left of center". I cried for a week.

Lately I've been exploring and evaluating what this survey score could possibly mean. Is it possible that I am so weak-minded that I have been overrun by liberal thought? Was I nothing more than a cork bobbing in the water waiting on a good strong wind to blow me back into position? Was I lost and unable to find my way back?

Since entering into the blogging world, I have had opportunity to read many posts from many different persons across the political and religious spectrum. While I have found that political tendencies do not seem to affect grammar and spelling, I have also found that too many of us are bound by labels. We are hopelessly adrift in a sea of hatefulness that knows no boundaries except those boundaries made possible by these same labels.

It is not enough to attempt to use a point to counter an argument. We choose to go for the jugular. We aim to belittle and destroy those with whom we disagree. We are intolerant of any opinion that differs from our own even as we DEMAND tolerance, and we find ourselves sounding not much different than those with whom we may disagree when the dust settles.

I suppose I have found that if a more liberal point of view uses good information and sound reasoning, it really does not matter whether I will ever agree. What matters is that I am the better for having allowed my mind to be open to another perspective, another point of view that serves to broaden my own perspective and even to help me think a little more clearly. I have also found that if I listen with an open mind and a closed mouth, I am far more likely to hear as much as I am heard.

I long for a day when reasonable discussions can be done with civility with an honest effort to sway and influence, of course, but also with a genuine desire to learn as much as can be learned before rendering a "final decision".

It is enough that we simply respect one another.

Have Peace.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Tough Questions

This evening I was watching Father Corapi on the Eternal Word TV Network. For those of you who are not familiar with Father Corapi, he is one I consider to be an exceptional teacher of the catechism of the Roman Church and the Bible. He is able to take what might otherwise be an overwhelming and complicated teaching and help listeners to make a practical application of the catechism to daily living and walking with the Lord.

Tonight I didn't catch the entire program, but his question that did grab my attention was simply this: WHY do we love YHWH? It may not be enough to simply love Him because of what He has done, or can do, for us. In other words, the challenge is: do we love Him only because we may get something from it?

I guess I had not really stopped to consider my love relationship with the Lord. I know that another time in listening to Father Corapi, he reminded us that "agape" love, true biblical love, is not an emotion but is, rather, an intentional act of the will. That is to say, we do because we love and not because we may ultimately get something for ourselves out of the deal.

Have you ever examined your own relationship daring to ask such a question? I admit that up to now, I have not. I can honestly say that I am blessed beyond measure, and I am sure that these blessings are not because the Lord has a particular love exclusively for me for my own sake. There is more. Much more. And it is time for me re-examine that "more" not because I may be in danger of a judgment but because I think, in my heart, I do love Him. The question that Father Corapi asks, however, confuses my reasons why.

More later. In the meantime, I would love you to comment on what your concept of love is and how you define your own relationship with Him. Is it a genuine give-and-take relationship, and how do you know? Or do you, like me, have perhaps ulterior motives in the deep recesses of your mind?

Have Peace.


Right or Wrong

1 Cor 8:1-13

A few years ago, a local church invited a few elders from around the state to come preach in its evening services for a short series.

It was not so much that the preachers were intimidated by the invitation to preach as much as it was the theme of what they would be asked to explore. The challenge was simply this: if this is the last sermon you will ever preach, what will you say? Though I may be called upon to fill in for a pastor here and there, this could very well be the very last sermon I will ever deliver. I do not yet know where the Lord will lead me from here.

So what would I choose to share with you if I could know for sure that this would be the very last sermon I would ever preach?

If I recall, my first sermon at Mallettown included my invitation to you to feel free to disagree with me … as long as you would acknowledge in the end that I was right all along!

I have since shared with you that being a disciple of Christ has little to do with whether man could be right or wrong because the chances are that even if we might be “technically” correct in our assumptions or beliefs, we would be in the wrong if we tried to use our knowledge to hurt someone, to “prove them wrong”.

Paul talks about the difference between knowledge and love. Though we may think we have knowledge of a greater truth, refusing to share that knowledge in love would ultimately do more harm than good to those with whom we would choose to share. There is always that danger that we, in our sense of “knowledge”, might become so full of ourselves that we could no longer be taught anything new. Once we reach a point of believing there is nothing new for us to learn, then we may as well declare ourselves to be GOD!

What is also dangerous about such a state of mind is that not only can we no longer hear others, we are incapacitated in our ABILITY to help others. What I mean by this is that if we truly listen to what others are saying, others with whom we would disagree, then we can know where they are in their journey and actually join them rather than insist that they catch up. We lose our ability or willingness to listen, however, and at least appreciate what others are saying; this amounts to nothing more than simply dismissing a dissenting opinion and the person who holds that opinion as “heretical”, “moronic”, or even “blasphemous”.

Rather than endearing such a person to ourselves, we serve only to alienate them. So even if we are “technically” correct, they will never hear it because they will not care to be around us. Who wants to be berated or belittled for expressing a genuine thought or difference of opinion?

The battle in Christ’s beloved Church between the so-called “conservatives” and the “liberals” is a battle that should not be fought because it is a battle that can never be won. Why? Because we are talking about the ideals upon which each of us has built our faith. We are talking about other individuals who have arrived at certain conclusions based on any number of factors, not the least of which may be the fond Bible stories our grandparents may have shared with us.

We are also talking about individuals who have been blessed by the SAME Lord with the SAME free will that we use to exercise our own faith. The problem we seem to encounter within the church is that problem in which man insists that HIS truth is more “true” or valid than any other could possibly be.

Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians goes far beyond what may or may not be true, and he is certainly talking about much more than just “food”. He simply acknowledges that there are some who will have their minds made up about a particular point – in this case, foods that may have been offered to idols – and that perhaps it is that we should not be in such a big hurry to correct. He does not say that the situation should be ignored, not at all. But he prefaces what he says with “knowledge PUFFS up, but love BUILDS up.” If we read it carefully from the heart, we should be able to see that Paul places the burden on those who are comfortable in their faith for the sake of those who are “weak”. It is not our “job” or “calling” or “task” to straighten them out.

There are the battle cries from the so-called “conservatives” who insist that if these dastardly “liberals” are not stopped, the Church will be DESTROYED!

I beg to differ.

It is not so much whether so-called “liberals” or “conservatives” are doing any harm, directly or indirectly, to the Church. Christ Himself has said that the “gates of Hades shall not prevail” against His beloved Church, so why would He be overly concerned about whether a “conservative” or a “liberal” poses any significant threat to His Church?

We the people of the United Methodist Church are about the business of “making disciples”. That’s it. There really is nothing more to it. We cannot be in the business of “saving souls” because I do not believe that power has been vested in any human person. We cannot be about the business of judging others even as we judge immoral behavior because this, too, has been reserved for a Greater Power than we.

But if we are about the business of Christ’s church and, ultimately, the business of the Lord, we will know that we are about “making disciples”. This is what is more commonly referred to as “The Great Commission”. This is our charge. This is our duty. This is our responsibility. This is our opportunity! This is our BLESSING! SHARING the Good News so that others will be hungry for MORE!!

Never mind labels. Never mind squeezing persons into neat little categories by which we determine whether they are worthy of the blessings of our Holy Father. Never mind worrying about the condition of another’s heart. Never mind about being “right” or “wrong”. We must be more mindful about removing the “PLANK” from our own eye before we worry about the “SPECK” in another’s eye.

My final word to you, dear friends, is this: Just as surely and as completely as He loves YOU …. He loves “THEM” as well, whoever “THEM” happens to be. And He has not called upon any of us to separate the wheat from the chaff for Him. That time, which is exclusively His, has yet to come.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Substance of Fear

"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." Matthew 10:28

There are no declared candidates for the 2008 presidential race yet - heck, we haven't even reached the midterm elections yet! - but the politicians are out in full force. Every year we usually observe that the election seasons seem to begin earlier and earlier each time. It will soon be that campaigning will begin the day after candidates are sworn into office!

The nomination of Judge Alito currently being debated in the Senate is not actually being debated in the Senate; it is being debated in the court of public opinion. Democrats are charging that President Bush is trying to destroy rights and shift the court to the right. But rather than actually engage in a genuine debate in a proper forum, they choose instead to take cheap and personal shots at the president while flitting around the country making speeches anywhere other than in the Senate - which, incidentally, they are PAID to do. From my own perspective, I try (though not always successfully!) to listen with an open mind in search of substance. It's fine that they disagree with the president. We cannot always agree on everything nor should we. The disagreements, however, are long on political rhetoric but considerably short on substance. They are trying their level best to make us afraid of the future.

Then the revelation of the "spying" business by NSA has not helped matters. It is more ammo for the Bush haters to use against the current administration. To be fair, however, the Republicans were equally guilty during the Clinton administration. Both were, and still are, guilty of fear-mongering.

In the end, the reason both parties lack substance is because they have none. And we have no one to blame but ourselves. We listen to it and respond to it not according to whether we agree or disagree but because they have successfully given us something to be afraid of. And rather than deal with it, we choose to live in fear. And we genuinely HATE what we fear or do not understand, do we not?

Let's face it. It is much easier to play on a people's fear than it is to make definitive proposals toward sound public policy. Why? Because we as an uninformed electorate do not read enough or even care enough about what goes on in Washington and in our own state capitals. The politicians hire political operatives to advise them, but few hire economic advisers for their advise. It is far more politically expedient to identify the concerns of a people, and then find someone to blame in order to make them responsible.

My boss is a solid manager with a good head on his shoulders. He is very confident in his own abilities, but he counts on his managers to keep him informed and address issues actually before they become problems. In meetings with this man, the very worst mistake anyone can make is to identify problems without offering a solution. My boss states very simply that a moron can see what's wrong, but a LEADER will work on solutions to make it right.

There is not much we need to fear in government. I do not fear the NSA spying on me because I have nothing to hide. I do not fear that it may lead to other abuses because Christians have been abused for centuries and if we are truly faithful to our calling, this will not change. I certainly do not fear politicians because they will do what they will do as long as we allow them, but there is a part of me they can never touch.

Honestly, dear reader, the only way we will return government to the people is by a 100% turnover in the current Congress. Even the good ones - and there are some - must go. This will be the only way that anyone will understand who truly calls the shots. These are not elected leaders; they are elected to REPRESENT us. Period. But if this is representative or indicative of our national consciousness, I can only say that we deserve everything we get - fear and all.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Gambling with the Future

There was a time in this nation and in our communities when vice was not considered to be a positive conduit for social structure or change. With the exception of Nevada, prostitution is still illegal. It also used to be that Nevada was the exception when it came to gambling. Now it is more difficult to identify those states where lotteries or other forms of gambling are not allowed. And in an effort to legitimize the business of gambling and sell it in a different package, it is referred to as the “gaming industry”.

Evidence suggests that this new “name tag” for what was once considered morally questionable by many is now not only an acceptable form of entertainment but is a potential source of state revenue from which – get this – our CHILDREN will benefit. Vice, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a moral depravity or corruption, a moral fault or failing, a defect or shortcoming, or a blemish or defect”. Yep, I’m sold. Sign my children up for a little depravity and add a moral failing or two while you’re reaching.

It is one thing for government to acknowledge and deal with a reality such as gambling. It is quite another matter altogether for the state to actively pursue, endorse, and actually encourage an act that has, statistically speaking, potentially destroyed more families than any other single vice. In the end, when the last paycheck has been cashed at the casino window – they offer this convenience, you know – and the last dollar has been dropped into a slot machine, it is ultimately the children of that wage earner who will suffer. Yet candidates for public office will try to convince us that somehow this “gaming” will actually benefit these same children whose careless parents gambled away the rent and grocery money.

Why is it that states have laws against such vice in the first place? What is it that the state had hoped to achieve by restricting, if not outright prohibiting, these acts that have historically proved to be harmful both directly and indirectly? Could it be that these so-called “victimless crimes” have proved time and again that they are not so “victimless” after all? And why is that states have decided that if our children are to be properly educated, lotteries and casinos that were once banned for good reason have now somehow become necessary?

Gambling, in whatever form and regardless of legality, is nothing more than “pie in the sky” with false promises of something for nothing. Of course we are warned that our odds of winning are something like a gazillion to one, but this warning is printed in very tiny letters on the backs of lottery tickets. Those who cannot afford glasses to read with certainly will not see this, and I dare say those who can read it will choose not to.

Churches and other ministries that specialize in addressing the havoc this scourge has wrought on us have since written pages and pages of warnings about the effects of gambling on families and children, but somehow we are more willing to believe a political candidate’s empty, if questionable, promises of “better days ahead for education” while virtually ignoring those who are witnessing first-hand the disaster that is left in the wake of very poor public policy.

Politicians continue to insist that they want to represent us and fight for us and protect us and look after our interests. They insist that the “little people”, the “working people”, and the “poor” have been virtually ignored in our society and have been left behind by the evil, capitalist economy. Then they try to convince us that the only way to help these disenfranchised folks climb out of the cellar of life is to initiate a lottery. What they fail to tell us is what is far too true: it is the very disenfranchised who are more likely to risk what little they have in the vain and desperate hope of “hitting the big one”.

Some things are wrong. They have always been wrong and will always be wrong. And the argument is not so much what may or may not be written in or directly quoted from Holy Scripture as what the consequences of morally questionable behavior will certainly bring. For government to be in active pursuit of “industry” whose profit comes directly from its customers’ losses is in direct conflict with the concept of government providing for the “common good”. It is bad public policy and, like vice, needs to be put back in its place and recognized for what it truly is.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


I delivered my 'farewell' sermon to my church this morning. I choose to share the sermon here because I think it is important for all of us - especially those among us who resist any sort of change - to more fully appreciate what Ecclesiastes tells us about time and how it can affect the itinerant ministry. I know many are not completely comfortable with pastors coming and going, but I think there is much good that can come from it. How much time is too much or too little, however, is probably the greatest challenge.

These people I've had the honor and privilege of serving are among the finest. They are just regular folks who do not try to be something other than who and what they are. They are genuine and sincere and extremely hospitable. My successor will not take long to realize how lucky he is to have been given such a charge. I am confident that they will receive him as well as they received me. My only prayer is that he will appreciate this charge for what it is and what it can be.


1 Corinthians 7:29-31 Mark 1:14-20
Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

The Lord our God has a plan. He has an awe-inspiring, overwhelming, incomprehensible layout of precisely what He pleases to do and exactly how He intends to go about it. Though man may try to throw a monkey wrench into the works in his own attempts to manipulate worldly blessings even with good intentions, such as how Abraham and Sarah treated Hagar, in the end the Lord’s will and way will prevail.

Last week I shared with you my thoughts about learning to appreciate the moment, whenever that moment happens to be, to have time to revel in the presence of YHWH.
But even as we learn to give ourselves up to those special moments, we must also learn to listen to the “still, small voice”, the very same Voice that guided Elijah from the cave and encouraged him to keep moving. Elijah moved because he knew Whose voice was urging him on.

Elijah’s time had ended, and along came Elisha. Moses’ time had ended, and along came Joshua. John the Baptist’s time had ended, and along came Jesus the Messiah.

Even as Jesus was about to begin His earthly ministry, He was already planning for His own departure by choosing apostles, though they had no idea at the time, who would continue His work on earth long after His Ascension.

Just as the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time for everything and in our own human ability to comprehend, that time for us is FINITE. Just as it is time for something to begin, there is also a definitive time for something to end – to make room for the NEW. The time, however, belongs to the Lord God. Time is His to manipulate and to control. Though we could wish that the Lord would be more mindful of OUR concept of time, the fact is that His time – like His thoughts and His ways – is not ours.

More than this, however, is our sense of priorities and duties to fit within that finite time. Just as we need to be mindful of His presence in our lives, we must also be mindful that His presence has purpose and meaning just as our lives have purpose and meaning, even if we cannot readily discern what that purpose and meaning may be.

In the past few weeks I have taken stock of my own priorities and sense of duty. I entered into the ministry prepared to have a little fun. After all, how fun is the idea of standing at a pulpit and talking uninterrupted for 15-20 minutes with little chance for rebuttal?? I had no idea how humbling the experience would become. Not long after I started preaching, my prayer changed from “Lord, give me light” to “Lord, please don’t let me screw this up!”

I have also discovered, in taking stock of my priorities and sense of duty, that perhaps it is that I entered into the preaching ministry and ordained candidacy process a bit prematurely. There are other things that have to be taken care of first, and I have found that there are not enough hours in the day and the week to fully commit myself to everything that needs to be done.

When I wrote down everything that requires my attention, and church & family tied for last place, I knew then that the voice I had been listening to was my own urging me to somehow try to break land-speed records by trying to take on more than any one person should be expected to do. Maybe I was trying to prove something. What I DO know is that I was not listening very well.
It was therefore with a heavy heart that I offered my resignation to the district superintendent last week. We had a long talk and time of prayer. The ordained ministry requires a college degree which you all know I’m pursuing. However, unlike a full-time pastor with no other job or a full-time student, I cannot be a full-time employee AND a full-time student AND a full-time husband and father AND even a part-time pastor because what I have discovered, if nothing else, is that that there can be nothing “part time” about being the pastor of a church.

When it finally occurred to me that perhaps resigning as your pastor was my only option, my first thoughts – of course – were of you and how this might affect the work that I had hoped we could begin here. I know that when I first arrived, there was an enormous need for healing. Regardless of fault or blame, bad feelings lingered though the spirit of this church was still intact. You overcame those bad feelings and, perhaps without realizing it, you resumed your function and ministry as a church.

Though this is a part-time charge for a pastor and maybe a part-time church for too many of us who are busy running in too many different directions at once, this is still an active and ALIVE church with a FULL-TIME MISSION and calling: to make disciples for Christ.

Whomever is at the pulpit is not nearly as important as remembering that as long as He is allowed, the Lord God will take care of the future of this church and any other church that chooses to follow Him and let Him lead the way.

I now know that my time here has come and gone; my “season” has ended. But we need only look at the transition between Moses and Joshua to understand that when the Lord God begins a great work, He is not about to abandon all that HE has accomplished, and He certainly will not stop until He is finished. I know in my heart of hearts that your Holy Father is not finished here.

I pray you will understand that for the very sake of my ministry – and yes, I do still have one just as each of you still do - my family, and my health, something had to be put on hold. My family and I will be forever grateful for your hospitality and your friendship. I also pray that one day you can come to fully realize how positively you have impacted my life and the lives of my wife and children.

We will always carry with us a deep and abiding love for this church that we had not felt for some time. You welcomed us, AND – I am quite certain of this – you have blessed us far more than I could have possibly blessed any one of you.

Transitions may be unpleasant for some of us, but the good that can come from these transitions is immeasurable when we place our complete faith and trust in the Lord our God and embrace the reality that time is not ours to command or control.

May you continue your journey in faith and in service.


Friday, January 20, 2006

Praying in Public Schools - Who's Stopping You?

While I enjoy receiving e-mails from friends old and far, what I hate more than anything is getting chain e-mails telling me that this country is going to hell in a hand basket if I break the chain or that I will personally go to hell for "denying Christ" by refusing to pass along another e-mail. While I can appreciate that these folks are simply sharing something with me that touched them in a personal and spiritual way, I'm not sure I appreciate the weight of the universe being entrusted to me in such a way that if I do not pass it along, my eternal soul will perish but for that one moment in cyber land.

The latest e-mail to cross my computer at work was one in which Dr. James Dobson is leading a crusade to restore prayer in public schools. This e-mail that came to me had literally hundreds of names of persons from all across the country who had signed up and passed it along. Of course, the warning that came with this particular e-mail said that if I did not want to pass it along, then I needed to send it back to the person who sent it to me. Failing to do this or pass it along would put me in Madelyn O'Hare's category as the ONE PERSON who was responsible for prayer being removed from public schools.

I beg pardon, but I refuse to be held personally responsible for something over which I had no control from the beginning and over which I have little control even now. I will say this, however. Have you ever used the phrase "use it or lose it" as it pertains to sick time or vacation at work? Or if you do not exercise your muscles, they will atrophy and lose their usefulness? Am I painting a picture here?

So what does this have to do with prayer in public school? Only this: a court can mandate that a public school administration cannot act as a mediator or conduit of religion, but this does not mean that people are actually prohibited from praying.

Those who support prayer in public school like to remind us that at about the time prayer in public schools was ruled "unconstitutional", the sexual revolution came in full bore. It was at about this time that morals went into the toilet, and folks gave themselves up to all kinds of debauchery and drugs. I agree that folks stopped caring, but I don't think public prayer, or the lack thereof, had much to do with it. Or perhaps it is that folks somehow got their heads filled with nonsense such as that the US Supreme Court had outlawed prayer altogether - so they stopped praying altogether and sat on street corners or gathered at the town pub and moaned and groaned about the moral direction of this nation.

"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them, for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you: they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Matthew 6:1, 5-6 NRSV

My very first sermon at a new charge came right on the heels of a court decision in TX that reminded us all that public schools cannot act as functionary for any sort of religious activity, including allowing school PA systems - such as at football stadiums - to be used to pray. Now while the reasonable among us would question the harm that could possibly be done besides to those poor souls who claim to be "offended" by such activity, the courts have nevertheless ruled that school functions and facilities might not be the best venue for prayer.

I maintain that Jesus seems to agree. So what was my sermon about? Simply, "What's Stopping You?" I reminded them that the court ruling specifically mentioned school-owned and controlled PA systems and football games. Does this then mean that we cannot pray AT ALL? Who says we can't pray at football games? Who dares suggest that there is no prayer at all in football games? Has your team ever been three points down at "fourth and goal" with only ten seconds left to play?

So what is stopping us from gathering at the north end zone (or south) and gathering for prayer? The court cannot stop that, and their ruling never tried. The various rulings over time have not outlawed prayer. It almost seems to me to be a good reminder of Jesus' words as quoted in Matthew. So who's stopping you?

It seems to me that we Christians are going to get a lot further with non-believers by praying for them instead of trying to force them to pray with us or like us. I freely admit that I am more apt to go along with something of my own choosing. If, however, I am being told I "must", I am much more likely to put up a fight.

It is not the US Supreme Court's fault or problem that we have stopped praying, choosing instead to gripe about not being able to force people to pray with us. It is not Madelyn O'Hare's fault that we threw in the towel and stopped praying and chose instead to curse those whom we choose to blame. And those @#&^#@ liberals are not at fault for rejoicing in the fact that prayer cannot be thrust upon any unwilling person.

How did we go from being a prayerful nation - if we ever were - to a nation that curses instead?

Monday, January 16, 2006

School Vouchers

I have a direct stake in education in Arkansas since I have two daughters, one of whom is about to graduate and move on to bigger and better things. I will also have a stake in Arkansas education long after my children are grown and gone because my community and this state will depend on its success and the success of its students. Of the many things that are permanent and lasting, education is the one that continues to give back as much as it ever gave and then some.

Today on talk radio the subject of school vouchers was addressed by the host. His argument was simply that the state should help children who are in "substandard" schools to be enabled to attend a better school perhaps only across town or in another district or even in a private school. For my way of thinking, this is flawed thinking on many different levels.

  • Yes, parents do have a right to move their children to private schools if they so choose. However, they do not have a "right" to expect the state to pay for it. The state is already paying for it, and so are these parents who will continue to pay the taxes that finance public education. It must also be remembered that in the rural areas of the state, a private school education is not always feasible. And according to the state Supreme Court, what is good and necessary for one child is good and necessary for all the others.
  • An individual child may benefit from vouchers that will help pay for the child to attend a different school, but how will this voucher address the problems that this child is trying to escape? I promise you these problems will not go away; they will only become greater and more acute the longer we ignore the core problems that obviously exist.
  • The Arkansas Supreme Court has ruled that our funding of public education is not "adequate" or "equitable". This goes back to the basic argument that if a larger school district can spend $7100.00 per student (this is a real figure!), then the other districts must be able to match it. In other words, a child in Backwater AR is as entitled to the $7100.00 spending level as a child in, say, Little Rock.
  • If the atmosphere from which one child is trying to escape is not conducive to sound learning, it must be reasonably assumed that other children are suffering equally. So rather than run away from the problem, how about we actually identify and fix the problem? Sending the child away from it does not mean that the problem will no longer exist.
  • If we cannot afford to raise spending levels to adequately match this $7100.00 spending level, we certainly cannot afford this spending level while financing private education with public funds. Being unable to raise spending to "equitable" levels means that the state can be held in contempt of a court order. Would this then mean that as long as the legislature continues to apply a band-aid over an open wound and defy the Court that the Court could actually "take over" the state school system?

What is disturbing about news reports from the governor and the members of the legislature is that these tiny ideas keep floating to the surface - and they may not be entirely without merit in their own time - the fundamental issue of "equitable" or even "adequate" is not being addressed. This is not a "panic" plea for someone to do something - QUICK! - before the state Supreme Court takes over the schools. It is, instead, an admonishment to those whom we have elected to office and entrusted to the task of keeping state government functioning.

And I will assure you: your pensions and raises have NOTHING to do with the well-being of public education.

It is time for serious people to address very serious problems. It is also time for voters to pay closer attention to what our elected officials are doing with their time and our money. We do not need more band-aids. We need teachers and administrators to show us, dollar for dollar, what it takes to operate a successful school. No more lawyers and no more politicians.

And above all else, no more excuses.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Cut-Off Point

California is scheduled to execute a man on Tuesday which also happens to be a day before the condemned man's birthday - his SEVENTY-SIXTH birthday! The man has been on California's Death Row for 23 years for murder. He has also been convicted of ordering three other murders while he has been behind bars. He is almost 76 years old, he is legally blind and is nearly deaf. And he is asking that his scheduled execution be blocked due to his advanced age and physical condition. His lawyers maintain that executing a "feeble old man amounts to cruel and unusual punishment". I don't know about cruel, but I have to say this is sort of an unusual case and calls to mind several conflicts I've had with the death penalty and even life sentences.

Let us be clear about a couple of points. The man was convicted of capital murder in California, and the penalty carries a sentence of death. This "feeble" old man has also ordered the murders of three others from behind bars. By this simple act, it is evident that this man - though feeble - is still a menace to society. These are facts.

It is also a fact that this man has already served 23 years and will likely not live much longer. It is also a fact that there is a 90-year-old man on death row in Arizona. I cannot help but wonder what they are waiting on there.

But is there such a thing as a reasonable cut-off point by which we would measure a standard of usefulness for the death penalty? Life sentences might also need to be re-examined as well. Consider a man who is convicted of a capital crime at the age of 20, and escapes the death penalty but is sentenced to life instead. Then he serves 50 years and is released on parole. Where is he supposed to go? What is he supposed to do? This is the same standard by which I admittedly scratch my head in wonder about executing such old men. What does our society reasonably expect to gain by such moves?

A 70-year-old man who has spent 50 years behind bars and is suddenly released is, in my opinion, subjected to "cruel and unusual" treatment if not punishment. Who will take care of him? Who is expected to take care of him? Would such a move be considered deliberate on the part of the state by releasing him just for the heck of it? How about an old deaf and blind man who has to get around in a wheelchair? The news story suggests that this man is nearly unable to function on his own although the article does not say how mentally agile he is. We cannot forget that he ordered three others killed while he was in prison. Like I said, still a threat although ordered murder took place in 1980.

Surely we must realize that we reach a cut-off point where society is no longer served by executing a man any more than society can be served by releasing an old man. Should age be a determining factor in sentencing? I know perfectly well that aged persons have had sentences suspended due to their ages. If everything is equal under the law, should this same standard not apply at least to a certain degree?

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Appreciating the Moment

I got home late this evening, having gone to the hospital on the way home from work to visit an old friend who had just undergone surgery. I'm sorry to say that he was just coming out of recovery and was not awake, but I did get to visit with his mother and sisters.

This man was more than just an old friend. Throughout my childhood, we were best friends. We were virtually inseparable up to our senior year in high school. After that, we lost touch. We went our separate ways and lived our own lives. Still, sitting with his mom - who was my "other" mom - and his sisters - who were my "other" sisters - left me with emotions that I can never quite grasp.

We graduated from high school in 1977 and even though my parents still live there, I spend very little time at "home". My own home is a little further north, and I have my own family with children who are often running in several different directions with their own lives. It is virtually impossible to make time to do much of anything except try to keep up with the kids!

On the way home, I began thinking of the crazy, funny, and often very stupid things we sometimes got away with. Ah, those were the days when parents took care of the hard stuff! All we kids had to do was to live our lives and try not to get caught!

I also began to think more about my own age and how fragile our lives really are. More than this, though, I thought more about the carefree days of childhood and how easy life was although I know that I probably didn't think that way at the time.

Is it true that we worry too much about our lives and things that will ultimately face us tomorrow? Jesus encouraged His disciples not to worry about tomorrow, but we do. And we get so bound to this world and its trappings that I began to wonder how much time we really allow ourselves to just "be still and know that I am God".

Depending on which poll we read, some 90% of Americans believe in a "higher power". 85% of Americans claim a Christian affiliation even if only roughly 60% of these claim a denomination affiliation. Sadly, the numbers consistently fall when polling Americans about whether they are active members or even attend church services with any regularity.

It then occurred to me that every passing moment we have is a moment lost in time; it goes by so fast. And each moment lost is an opportunity lost but not the kind of opportunity the world offers.

The world demands that we "seize the moment" and make the most out of everything life and the world has to offer. Another chance to make another dollar or build a bigger house or buy a finer car or go after that bigger paycheck with bigger responsibilities and ... and ... and we wind up doing nothing more than our silly dogs when they chase their own tails. We go round and round and accomplish absolutely nothing.

If we are truly a predominately Christian nation with the kind of hope that Christianity teaches, why do we fail to seize these moments that ultimately belong to the Lord God and just say, "thank you"? Why is it that it takes a tragedy or a friend in surgery or a child in trouble before we realize that the Lord was standing there the whole time just waiting with an outstretched Hand?

Every moment belongs to Him. The sooner we come to realize this, the sooner we can really begin living.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Secondary Education

Arkansas has as much to gain as it does to lose in the current debate about public education, and this is a most critical time for term-limited legislators to do what is necessary and right for the future of Arkansas and its children without being overly focused on the next election. The Arkansas Supreme Court has spoken, and now it is time for the people to respond.

The state is constitutionally required to provide educational opportunities for its children, and the Lake View case is what has brought it all home. Perhaps it is that consolidation of some districts was the right thing to do, but it may also be time to expand the role of the state's Department of Education.

It is no secret that Arkansas has pockets of poverty in sections of the state in which industry is not typically attracted, but Arkansas is not alone. Every state in the union would certainly have its own areas that do not perform as well as others. Does this mean that something in the water causes lower scholastic achievement in certain parts of the state, or might it mean that the municipalities can only work with what they have?

Therein, I think, lies the fundamental problem with secondary education. It is not that the state is not demanding that children attend school, and it is not that the state is refusing to address problems. I think the whole thing can be summed up in "equal" as well as "adequate" funding levels.

I do not believe that money itself, or the lack thereof, is the root cause of educational failures in Arkansas. Parents and the children must own up to their own failures. To question whether the educational funding system in Arkansas is adequate is not addressing what I believe to be the core concern of the state Supreme Court. I also do not think that the Supreme Court has overstepped its constitutional boundaries in its timeline and demand. While "adequate" will be difficult to determine, I believe the Supreme Court has only stated that if the state spends $3 on a student in NW Arkansas, it must also spend $3 on a student in the Delta region. This money would necessarily include teacher salaries and adequate facilities.

Existing formulas can help teachers and administrators to determine what is "adequate" not according to demographics but adequate in what it will take to ensure that a senior in high school is actually reading at a senior's level. "Adequate" will demand not that a student can figure the most complex mathematical problems but that a student can function in the real world by balancing a check book, figuring simple and compound interest, and understanding credit markets. These are real-world applications, and the consumer debt load and level of literacy in this nation suggests that perhaps we are not addressing "functionality" in education.

Does an "adequate" education demand that all graduating seniors be overachieving scholars? It seems to me that perhaps we are expecting and demanding too much of the children by asking that they be able to compete with Japanese or German children when in reality, they need only be able to function right here at home.

The solution is very simple, I think. The state's Department of Education will disburse the money according to population and enrollment so that in the end if the governor's "secret" meetings can determine what is "adequate", the Department of Education can work to ensure "equitable" disbursement of funds.

First things first, however. "Adequate" must be defined and measured.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Defining the Proper Worship

Is there such a thing as "proper" worship? I ask this question because, having grown up Catholic, there are certain elements in the liturgy that I've grown accustomed to and if any of these elements is missing, I feel like "proper" worship has not taken place.

I have visited other churches that split their time between "traditional" worship services and "blended" or "contemporary" styles of worship. I have visited churches where it is not difficult to spot those who are "in the moment" or, as they might suggest, "in the Spirit". I'm not much for rowdy worship, but for others it seems to work well.

I have attended services where no musical instruments are used, and I've attended worship where there was not only a musical instrument of almost every type but drums as well (I don't think I will ever get used to drums in worship!).

Even in considering what constitutes "proper" worship, I wonder whether attending church services is even necessary.

There can be no doubt that whatever is being offered, the heart must be prepared for worship. However, I have grappled with this question since some of the so-called "megachurches" cancelled their services because Christmas fell on the Sabbath in 2005. Many who took exception to this unfortunate decision bemoaned the "consumer mentality" that decided to give the people what they want, and they reasoned that folks would rather spend time at home with family on Christmas than attend worship. Some of these "megachurches", in their statements, suggested that this is somehow more important than actually attending worship.

The very fact that there are churches with such a mentality as opposed to those churches which insist that the doors must be open suggests that our differences go much deeper that our denominational doctrine disputes.

Does this perceived "consumer mentality" drive us to offer "traditional" or "contemporary" or blended styles of worship? Why has it become necessary to have multiple pastors at the same church who officiate at different services of varying styles? If this is not succumbing to the "consumer mentality" by offering a buffet of services and presenting it as "something for everyone", then exactly what is it? Why do we cast stones at these "megachurches" for giving in to the "consumer mentality" by closing on Christmas Sunday when serving the consumer is precisely what we do when we make efforts to jump through flaming hoops in the hopes that word will get out that our service is "neat" and hope that someone will show up?

Worship on the Sabbath is important for the faithful for more reasons than I can possibly list here. And considering what has been given for us and to us, I don't think the Lord is being unreasonable to ask that we show up. But if we are making deals with the churches we choose to attend or serve and demand that they offer us entertainment in an effort to keep us interested, then what is truly being accomplished?

If the heart is not in it, why bother at all?

It's Not Always Easy

Lately I've been more focused on my pastoral minstry as a licensed part-time local pastor simply because I have reached a critical point where I may have to make a decision to resign at least temporarily until I clear a little more off my plate. At one time I thought I could easily fit just one more thing into my schedule and still have some extra time left over, but it is not to be.

Just this afternoon, I finally had time to get up on my house and remove the Christmas lights. Once there, I also had time to clean out my gutters (although this move seems to be moot since the Lord has not seen fit to bless our fair state with rain lately). Once I had this done, I came down to finally get around to cleaning the leaves from my yard.

Since I took this Sunday off and am on a break from school (classes will resume 1/21), I actually found myself with time to do absolutely nothing I didn't feel like doing on a Saturday. And tomorrow my family and I will attend worship at another church other than the one I am appointed to. As I was wandering from one end of the house to the other, it suddenly occurred to me that this is precisely how it once was before I enrolled at school and entered into the ministry.

I had time to flirt with my wife and watch my children run in all directions. I had time to read a book just for the heck of it. I had time to help clean the kitchen (that's what flirting will get you!), and I had time to watch a movie on TV.

I admit that I feel a little guilty, but not for reasons otherwise considered. I feel a little guilty because I DON'T feel guilty. I felt like maybe I should have been doing something a little more constructive, or maybe I should have been working on next week's sermon. Perhaps I could pick up my school books and get a jump on the course work coming up.

When everything is hitting on all cylinders, I have felt guilty because I was holed up in my office working on a sermon or doing school work. Now that I had time to be available to my family, they were running in all directions living their lives and doing their Saturday stuff; they didn't seem to need me at all! I can't seem to catch a break.

I suppose there will always be times when I will not be in the right place at the right time. For middle-aged persons like me who suddenly wake up one day and realize there is more to this life than simply existing, it will always be a challenge to balance one thing against another. Career and family will always conflict at one point or another, and church will just be whatever I make of it, I suppose.

Until the day they bury me, what else am I going to do?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Asa Joseph Daniel

My Dear Nephew,

Even at the tender age of only eight months, you cannot begin to imagine the impact your young life has already had. You came into our lives on April 24, 2005, and already you were blessed beyond measure.

Your birth mother, knowing the infinite value of life, chose to carry you to term. Then perhaps doubting her ability to provide for you in such a way as she believed necessary for your well-being, she offered you up for adoption. It surely was not easy for her to do. In fact, she very nearly changed her mind more than once after having agreed to allow my brother and his wife to offer you a home in their hearts. You see, dear child, you already had a home in her heart. Like I said, blessed beyond measure.

Then the time came for you to go home with two parents who had prayed that one day they would be blessed in such a way as to share their home and their hearts with a little one. These are good people, and your life was being laid out even before this moment had arrived.

Your father is my "baby" brother although he can hardly be considered a "baby". In fact, in many ways your father matured long before I did! He prepared for his future in college, graduating from the University of Arkansas. His path to true success included asking your mother to be his wife.

Do you see, beloved child of God, that your life has been touched by a Divine Hand even before you were formed in your mother's womb? Just as it is written in the book of Jeremiah, the Lord has a wondrous way of working in our lives even before we are consciously aware of it. And I sincerely hope you grow to realize this truth.

I only got to spend a few hours with you during your first Christmas, and it was all I could do to contain my emotions. I have nieces who are incredible young ladies and, of course, I have children of my own. Why is it that you have touched my life in such a profound way?

I think it may be because we tend to take so much for granted. While many couples plan for children in their lives, I cannot say that there is much prayer to that end. Of course there are the usual casual prayers that a hoped-for child will be born healthy and with all fingers and toes. There are, of course, the fervent prayers of those experiencing a difficult pregnancy. I still wonder how often couples pray together to ask for such a blessing, assuming that such a thing is nothing more than a biological wonder. It is not often that we parents think in terms of miracles until we have been privileged to actually witness the birth of our own children. I know this to be true in my own case when your cousins were born.

I hope that as you continue to grow in your life and your family's faith, you will one day realize that you were no accident. In fact, I've often preached that there is no such thing as an accidental life. There are certainly pregnancies that were not intended, but there is no such thing as a life without purpose. There is no such thing as a life that has not been divinely created. It just is that too often we can become so busy with "stuff" that we forget that Someone greater than we had a plan all along. He is only too glad to share His plan with us, but we forget to ask. We simply take for granted that what happens to us incidentally must have been what was intended all along. This may or may not be true, but we will never know the truth of it if we never bother to ask the Author of life.

Even as you are so richly blessed in your young life, you are also a blessing to so many others that you may never be fully aware of. I know of doctors who have helped to deliver hundreds of babies, and the wonder of this miracle never escapes them. Each is special in its own right and time.

Your birth has reminded us all of the miracle of life itself and that even as we forget to give thanks for the simple things in life, the Lord does not forget us so easily. So He sends us little reminders of all that is good and true and right. He blesses us with children.

The world that you've been born into is not always such a pretty place. As you grow, I pray that you will witness, and perhaps even experience, enough misery so that you can take pleasure in the simplest of blessings. This way, you will be able to experience the glory of God's presence in your life without waiting for something like the parting of the Red Sea!

Your parents love you so much that they have presented you to a church in the community you will likely grow up in, recognizing that you are truly a gift from Heaven itself and also in knowing that they - like the rest of us - will need a little help.

Just know that you have touched lives without even trying. Imagine what you will accomplish one day when you actually put forth an effort. And I pray that you will.

With Profound Love,

Uncle Michael

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

What do Pastors Want?

In light of my previous post about concerns within the church and how I fit in or not, I thought I would also ask a question that will hopefully generate some response because I really want to know what others are thinking.

I am convinced that there are some who are gifted for the pastoral ministry and those who are gifted for the preaching ministry. I have known some who were exceptional pastors who were horrid preachers. By the same token, I have known some outstanding preachers who would have no business being pastors. Each is a gift in its own right, and not everyone is suited for either/or.

I have, at least for now, answered my own question about whether to continue as a part-time pastor. I am employed full-time in a secular position of responsibility that virtually consumes me. I am also a part-time/full-time college student working to finish my undergraduate degree. It occurred to me that my church and my family barely figure into the mix, and both deserve more consideration from me. The truth is, I cannot handle them all at once. There are only so many hours in a week, and I've run out of time.

I've known this for quite some time, but I always figured that I could somehow manage. I did not want to admit failure or defeat, but it really started to come home for me when I nearly failed a class because I was not able to put the time into it that it required.

Beyond that, what drove me to keep up this pace? Why was it so important that I continue to be a pastor? What was I seeking? Is it to fulfill a "calling"? Somehow I felt that resigning my pastorate would be cheating the Lord. Actually, I continued not necessarily for a love of Christ as for a debt that can never be fully paid.

What drives other pastors? What compels a student to borrow thousands of dollars to get a seminary degree and come out with what is for some a crushing debt? Surely there are enough passionate and ambitious pastors out there who want "more", the very "more" that I have difficulty defining.

For others, what do you seek in a pastor? Do you require a charismatic speaker, or do you need a shepherd? Do you need a friend, or do you want a leader and teacher? What can a pastor do to "feed Christ's sheep"?

Why do we do this? What would you ask of us?

Monday, January 02, 2006

Dear District Superintendent

RE: Annual Pastor Consultation

It is with a heavy heart that I offer to tender my resignation and surrender my license, if required, as a part-time licensed local pastor and candidate for ordained ministry. I have struggled with my “call” for some time and the evidence that once led me to believe that this was the right path for me no longer seems to exist.

I was at one time enthusiastic for this ministry, but my experience suggests that there is no such support structure within the church for this kind of enthusiasm for the second-career local pastor. While I can feebly suggest that there is perhaps someone else to blame, I can only look within myself and recognize that I cannot go this path alone. And in my own personal experience, I am without support from the church. The only real support and encouragement that I can truly depend on is the support I have received, and still do receive, from my family and the congregation I currently serve.

I began this journey with a mentor whose wife was suffering from cancer. In order to remove burdens from this man (rightly so) for obvious reasons, I was assigned another mentor which seemed to work very well. However, somehow soon after this mentor retired as an active clergy, he was “fired” from being a pastoral mentor.

Several weeks passed until I was finally assigned another mentor who made it clear from the beginning that he really didn’t have time for such. In his defense, he was in the middle of a new ministry that was just taking off and he was almost completely consumed. When we did finally meet for the first time, I had to drive all the way from my work place to him. He did not offer to meet me half way. Upon arrival and during a very brief visit, he actually fought to stay awake! We’ve not met since except via very limited e-mail.

I have watched workshop after workshop be offered during business hours to “all pastors” with no consideration for local pastors who cannot take time off from work to attend without losing vacation time or pay. When I specifically inquired whether such a scheduling could be possible, I was only told that “these things are scheduled months in advance”. There was no suggestion that perhaps more consideration may need to be made to include local pastors, only that I was welcome to attend if I could make it.

These are workshops that are apparently beneficial, if not mandatory, for full-time pastors but only “come if you can” for part-time local pastors. Is it not possible that local pastors and the congregations we serve could somehow benefit from this same information? Evidence suggests that these workshops are important only for those churches that can afford a full-time pastor.

I have witnessed part-time local pastors be removed from charges in favor of young college students who have only expressed an interest in pastoral ministry but who do not indicate otherwise that they are actively pursuing the path of ministry. Instead of giving these young people a rural, typically conservative pastorate in which are found far too many so-called “clergy killers”, would these students and the church not benefit more from the tutelage and direct supervision of an experienced elder at a larger church? “Clergy killers” are difficult enough for seasoned pastors and older local pastors, but a 20-year-old college student is not prepared or equipped for the bile that these "clergy killers" are capable of. In the end, the rural church is without a pastor and the larger church is without what could have been a potentially gifted minister who can easily be discouraged from further pursuit of the ministry by one “killer”.

Second-career pastors attend the licensing schools at their own considerable expense but are tossed aside without question because there are no “guarantees” for local pastor appointments. It also seems that the local pastor is not “allowed” to directly address a bishop!

Here is a case in point. I once made the mistake of sending an e-mail directly to the bishop asking if it may be possible for her to visit the small church I once served. Though the congregation was small, the number of children was disproportionably high! I (and apparently only I) thought it would be wonderful if the bishop could visit this shared congregation of United Methodists and Free Will Baptists on Confirmation Sunday, so I sent the bishop an e-mail.

Rather than respond directly to me that her calendar was full, which I would have expected and understood, she made a long distance call to have the district superintendent make a long distance call back to me to suggest that my request was perhaps out of line. Now that is a system of support, I must say.

It is clear that the ministry of the local pastor is needed only to fill a void that cannot, or will not, be filled by the ministry of the ordained elder, and I thought I had reached a point where I can live with this perceived attitude. Unfortunately, I cannot.

I cannot accept a system that offers support to one element of the same ministry but not to another. I cannot accept a system that suggests even for one moment that a bishop is “too high up” to be addressed directly by a lowly local pastor. And while it may be suggested that this was perhaps one “bad” bishop, it must be remembered that the system created this bishop and appointed her to a lifetime position within the church.

This kind of introspection pains me because this journey was not something I entered into lightly. When I have asked for help, which I admit is sometimes difficult for me, I have been made to feel as though I have quite a nerve daring to ask and made to feel as though I am not a “real” pastor worthy of any consideration. The local pastor seems expected to simply suck it up and move on. The “lip service” that the ministry of the local pastor is needed is abundant, but the evidence that my ministry means something is not.

I do not feel like I am a part of anything. I do not fit in with the typical local pastors, and I do not fit in with the ordained clergy. The few gatherings of local pastors I have participated in were of such a nature as to suggest that many of these people should not be allowed to serve as lay speakers, let alone pastors of churches! And the “clergy circle”, as some have referred to it, seems to be nothing more than an exclusive club reserved only for the intellectually elite elders among us.

Finally, I have to consider my own state of mind and spirit. I am one who believes that each of us is responsible for ourselves. I am not “needy” in any sense of the word, so I have to consider that these perceived situations exist only in my own mind. Perhaps it is that I don’t fit in or feel accepted because I really do not fit in and that I am somehow unacceptable.

Given all these things, I cannot imagine any congregation that deserves such a pastor as I. Maybe it is that I am needier than I am willing to admit, but my need extends beyond the congregation I serve. I am ambitious enough that I need to know I am working toward something, still ambitious enough that I want to work toward something more.

It is the “more”, however, that I am having a difficult time defining.